I spend my days with my nose in WordPress with an ever present contemplation of how to scale without taking away too much control from the end-users. WordPress ain’t Sharepoint, where you want to lock things down so people don’t cause trouble. Half the fun of WordPress, for the individual site admins, is moving widgets around, trying out plugins, that kind of thing. I love when people tell me how much fun they had with a plugin. To make an enterprise system a platform for individual creativity and inspiration is one of the keys to keeping content fresh — if people are having fun, they tend to want to go in and fiddle with things more.
So I see my developer role not simply as making cool stuff happen, but allowing others to make cool stuff happen. No one gets inspired simply by typing in text or updating typed-in text. That’s boring. People want to easily do the things that pop into their heads: embed video, add a twitter feed, do a slideshow, include audio.
Since we are a small shop, I’ve developed a strategy of only building the plugins and theming elements that are idiosyncratic to my institution: incorporating institutional data, authentication, institutional search, branding, etc. For the rest of the desirable coolness that I or our site admins can dream up, the WordPress repository is filled with all sorts of stuff that’s worth trying.
WordPress has grown so huge in terms of its plugin base that it can boggle the mind searching for what you need. I moderated a discussion at UVa about Drupal vs. WordPress. One of the arguments for Drupal was that it takes a village to get modules and plugins submitted to their codebase, therefore ensuring integrity. With WordPress, you only need to upload your plugin to the codex and, voila! You’re a developer, too.
This wild west kind of approach is anathema to many developers. But as with all things crowdsourced, to me, this simply shifts the burden of ensuring plugin integrity to those of us who try out and use plugins developed by others. Absent guidelines, I have found the following to help in selecting plugins that I am confident enough in to deploy to an enterprise WordPress CMS:
- Know thy developers: Check out the author of the plugin and follow links to their other work. That can be a clue as to who is most reliable.
- Last Updated: Check that the update has been within the last 12 months. If not, don’t bother. It’s been abandoned.
- Support Forum Responses: If the support forum has few (or no) reliable responses on it, you may want to look elsewhere.
- Reach out through Social Media: Ask online about plugins that have you feeling ambivalent and see if folks have any good or bad experiences, or can suggest alternatives.
Finally, note that you will be responsible for these plugins once you have deployed them. They could be abandoned down the road, so, be vigilant and review for updates (and alternatives) regularly. These days, WordPress has gotten very good at letting you know when things are getting a little stale.
For those who want more support, I am not adverse to premium themes and plugins. As a matter of fact, there are a few that I think are must-haves when deploying WordPress as an enterprise CMS. The cost is usually minimal, and it can save you TONS of development time. I like that cottage industries are popping up around WordPress, enabling folks to eek out a bit of a living from their work. In the past couple of years, I’ve only encountered one vendor where I thought the price was outrageous — and the price dropped a year later. So, I think that the community is quite self-regulating in this regard. Here are a few guidelines for when to pay those dollars:
- Test the free stuff first: Search the repository for every possible free plugin that does the same thing. If you settle on the premium plugin, test its free version first (they usually have a “free” version for download). Lots of times, the free version can be fully functioning, but only allow for a single site installation. If it’s just so awesome you gotta have it…
- Reach out to social media: As with the free ones, ask if anyone’s using it and if it’s worth the cost
- Consider annual licensing: Make sure that your budget will allow you to renew if the terms are annual
- Keep vigilant about ongoing alternatives: WPTouch Pro was all the rage a few years ago. Now that responsive design is here, a good responsive framework (like Genesis) may be all you need to go mobile to start.
Finally, here is my list of “must-haves” (as of today — it could change) of WordPress plugins and things that will put a small development shop in the enterprise CMS business very quickly:
- Networks+: Enables you to develop multiple networks on a single install. A lifesaver when you need multiple domains with multiple sub-directories. Developed by the extraordinary Ron Rennick. Price: $29.95.
- Genesis Framework: This is like the WordPress core extended out as far as it can with all kinds of hooks that will get you going FAST developing powerful theme features. Responsive out of the box, and has a huge user base with documentation all over the web and vigilant updates. Genesis is a developer’s framework — it’s not for newbies. You need to understand WordPress thoroughly to get this going, but it’s a great way of putting a wide, quality developer community behind you. Developed by StudioPress, a division of CopyBlogger Media which is a group of leading WP developers (including Ron and Andrea Rennick). You can’t go wrong here. Price: $59.95.
- Gravity Forms: Perhaps the single most bang for your buck for any WordPress premium plugin out there. Naive users can create HTML forms on the fly. Can create simple surveys and other site interaction. Better than email forms because it maintains full reports of form data within the WordPress administrative backend. Constantly providing add-ons. Developed by the talented and delightfully surly Carl Hancock. Price: $199.
- Types and Views: Types is a free plugin that allows the creation of custom post types. Views, its premium cousin, then allows for custom layouts to display the custom post types and corresponding metadata. Powerful because you no longer need to build PHP code into your functions.php file — these can be done on a site-by-site basis for more sophisticated users. If you like what you do, you can export the types and views for use elsewhere. Price for Views: $95.
- WordPress101 Plugin: This plugin delivers WordPress tutorial videos to the administrative panel. This has saved me many, many visits to users for training. The self-guided videos provide basic instruction in the WordPress interface for the novice. Support is superb! Developed by Mark Jaquith (whom you may have heard of) and Shawn Hasketh . Price: $19/month OR $190 annual.
- Slidedeck Developer License: There are many free slideshows out there, and a free Slidedeck plugin, but the developer license gives you unlimited sites and custom “lens” development. The backend admin is far and away the most favored by users. Custom lens development has a bit of a learning curve, but is quite powerful when you get used messing around inside the spaghetti code. Price: $149 (Note: this is the one that was going for $299 a few years ago when I chose NOT to buy it
In short, we don’t have to go it alone. There are so many folks out there doing good things, some for free, some for donations, some for a small price. But, let the community keep you from going crazy.